“Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic of original gangster rap band N.W.A. and their turbulent rise and fall, is at once a very specific look at the birth of a musical genre and a universal music industry story about how money, ego and bad management will break a band a part faster than you can say, “Boyz-N-The Hood.”
We first meet MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) as young men growing up in Compton, the most notorious neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles. Dre and Cube are music obsessed teens, trying to avoid getting “locked up or laid down.” Dre is a genius DJ, a master of beats, while Cube is a journalist of sorts, writing rhymes that report on life in the hood. Their reality is near constant police harassment, casual violence and intimidation by gangs.
Eazy-E, a local drug dealer looking or a way out of the life, puts up the seed money to start a record label and soon he moves from banker to frontman and NWA is born. A couple local hits later they’re approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in another role, following this year’s “Love and Mercy” that sees him exploiting a Californian musician) an old school manager with a plan to make them famous and himself rich. They become a sensation, birth gangsta rap and fall to pieces under the weight of their success. Heller, Eazy-E and the shards of NWA on one side, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) on another with Ice Cube completing the triangle. Bad blood and bad business deals blow apart their once tight relationships and it isn’t until they consider getting back to basics that old wounds begin to heal.
“Straight Outta Compton” plays like dozens of music bios that came before but despite featuring music industry clichés—sometimes the clichés of cheating managers, ego and excess are clichés because they’re true—it spends more time on the characters than the situation. It’s funnier and warmer than you might anticipate a movie about the ferocious and profane beginnings of gangster rap, a music born out of frustration and a need to be heard, but the emotional truth of the film is based in the relationship between the leads, particularly Dre, Eazy and Cube. A palpable sense of camaraderie is present throughout, and it grounds the film during its more excessive moments.
Mitchell’s Eazy-E has the widest emotional arc and he pulls it off, bring a steely vulnerability to the character that humanizes him and makes his (SPOILER ONLY IF YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT N.W.A.!!) early demise all the more devastating.
Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real life son, dispels any talk of nepotism, handing in a performance that captures the familiar mannerisms and essence of his father.
Also strong are Hawkins as the budding megaproducer Dre and Keith Stanfield as the young Snoop Dogg.
On the downside the movie doesn’t have much use for its female characters unless they are playing stern mothers, compliant groupies or supportive wives. We may have to wait for the Salt-N-Pepa biography for a look at the female side of hip hop.
At two-and-a-half hours “Straight Outta Compton” is a detailed look at the band that, although it takes liberties with the facts in favour of drama, grabs the rhythm of the time by the throat and doesn’t let go. Echoes of the Rodney King trial reverberate throughout the film giving the movie, in light of Black Lives Matter, a timely feel that showcases the prescient nature of Ice Cube’s rhymes.